Despite a burgeoning urban farming movement, most people in the developed world have no idea what goes into running a successful farm. For the last few months, MyFarm, an experiment led by the U.K.'s National Trust, has given armchair farmers in the U.K. the opportunity to vote on major decisions at a 2,500-acre organic farm (the Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire, U.K.) via a website. Now, with 3,000 online participants voting on everything from wheat varieties to sowing methods, MyFarm is expanding into a conventional farm, where users can deal with all sorts of farm chemical fun--and find out what goes into most of their food.
"One of the criticisms we got at launch is that only 4% of U.K. farms are organic. Lots of trade press were saying this a great idea but it’s not a true [representation] of how farming is in this country," explains Jeannette Heard, press officer at the National Trust. When the tenant at a 250-acre conventional farm near the Wimpole Estate decided to retire, MyFarm seized the opportunity.
Participants, who pay a £30 subscription fee to vote on farm decisions, will soon have the opportunity to compare organic farming methods on the Wimpole Estate to more conventional ways of farming at MyFarm’s new Cambridge Road Farm. "One of the main differences is how to treat crops that get infected with disease. On the conventional farm, they’ll be able to be treated with chemicals, but on an organic farm that wouldn’t be allowed. You would have to rely on natural predators," says Heard.
A sample conventional farming problem for MyFarm users: deciding whether to treat weeds in a cereal crop with herbicides. The herbicides work faster than natural methods, but machinery and chemicals are expensive. The chemicals are also potentially dangerous to human health.
Organic farms are arguably better for the environment, but MyFarm’s expansion into conventional farming still makes sense. Unless people really understand the differences between conventional and organic farming, they can’t make informed decisions. Now that MyFarm users can make the farming decisions themselves, their choices at the grocery store will be a lot more educated.